The ‘partners’ days are done.
News that Russia will suspend its participation in the New START nuclear arms pact, which arrived Tuesday via Vladimir Putin’s annual address to the Federal Assembly, had to land hard.
This suspension is not a withdrawal, as various Western media reports initially described it, and it is temporary, as the Russian president described it. It is a carefully attenuated move, then. But it is a big deal nonetheless, although it is not a big deal in the way Western officials encourage us to think it is. It is a big deal in ways that Western officials do not want us to think about.
“With today’s decision on New START,” NATO Secretary–General Jens Stoltenberg said at a joint press conference in Kiev with Dmitry Kuleba, the Ukrainian regime’s foreign minister, “the whole arms control architecture has been dismantled.” This is the baldest, farthest-out-there take on Moscow’s step back I have been able to find. The New York Times initially ran this quotation but dropped it from its news report within a few hours, wisely. Now you have to find it in The Kyiv Independent, the not-independent propaganda daily backed by various Western governments.
What Stoltenberg was doing in Kiev, given NATO claims it is not prosecuting a war against Russia, is a good question. Then again, lots of people of Stoltenberg’s stature travel to Kiev these days. President Biden just took a train from Poland to Kiev to have a look at the progress or otherwise of the war the U.S. is not waging against Russia. Let us not miss: This kind of thing has much to do with Putin’s New START decision, as he made clear in his remarks Tuesday.
Secretary of State Blinken, passing through Athens, termed Moscow’s decision “unfortunate and irresponsible”—an improvement on Stoltenberg’s deranged nonsense. “Irresponsible” is a word I have long thought American officials ought to avoid when describing the conduct of others. Russia’s move cannot justly be so described. But I will go along with “unfortunate.” Yes, it is. It is unfortunate things have come to this.
To begin at the beginning, Moscow did not dismantle anything this week. Successive American regimes have dedicated themselves to that project for decades—always citing that imperative claim to America’s innocence and the other side’s responsibility for forcing its hand. New START is the last extant nuclear arms control accord, as Western media have pointed out this week. This is so because Washington has “dismantled” all the others but one–which Western media did not point out.
The Bush II government pulled out of the Anti–Ballistic Missile treaty, the ABM, in 2002—fast work for a president one year in office. In 2019, the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement, the INF. For good measure it took the U.S. out of the Treaty on Open Skies a year later.
Who has been dismantling the architecture, Mr. Stoltenberg? I have to say, of all the NATO sec-gens I have had to watch over the years, this guy goes home with the cake. He’s Washington’s jukebox: American officials put in a quarter and Jens sings the selected song.
As to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in its various iterations, the original START accord took effect in 1994, and the arms cuts it called for were completed on schedule when it expired in 2009. Moscow and Washington negotiated START II, but Russia pulled out in 2002 in response to the U.S. Congress’s refusal to ratify it and Bush II’s concurrent withdrawal from the ABM pact. New START was the Obama administration’s banana and came into force in 2011. This is the treaty Russia has just temporarily set aside without abrogating.
Note the name and the provenance. New START developed during that strangely lit period when Obama and Hillary Clinton, as his secretary of state, had the idea of getting along with “Putin’s Russia”—I always love reading this phrase—by turning Boris Yeltsin’s successor into another pliant pushover, even if Putin didn’t conduct business while inebriated. Remember Clinton, with that idiotic “reset” button she brought along for talks in Geneva with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov? That was the theme at the time, even if Clinton’s minders mistranslated “reset” into the Russian for “overload”—which, as things have turned out, was a better term for what Clinton et al. had in mind.
For many years after the “reset” days, Putin, Lavrov, and other Russian officials routinely referred to “our American partner” or “our Western partners.” These expressions reflect what was in the air during the early years of the New START period. Putin and his FM kept up the “partners” bit for a surprisingly long time. It was wishful thinking as I read it, a measure of their abiding desire for constructive post–Cold War relations with Washington and the European capitals. Alas.
The “partners” days are done, Putin said Tuesday in so many words. Does it not follow that Moscow has no reason to take arms treaties seriously when (1) Washington has serially abrogated their terms and (2) the cooperative spirit on which these kinds of accords rest has been—but precisely—dismantled?
The Kremlin’s transcript of Putin’s speech is here. Remember the extraordinary bitterness in Putin’s speech announcing the start of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine a year ago? I read a muted version of the same sentiment in his remarks Tuesday to the Federal Assembly, a yearly gathering of legislators and various other high officials:
We were ready for a constructive dialogue with the West; we said and insisted that both Europe and the whole world needed an indivisible security system equal for all countries. But in response we received either an indistinct or hypocritical reaction…. There were also actions: NATO’s expansion to our borders, the creation of new deployment areas for missile defense, deployment of military contingents.
This is not a man pleased to announce he is stepping back from New START. The Foreign Ministry, indeed, was swift to state after he spoke that Moscow will continue to observe the treaty’s terms. This is a man no more eager to suspend the Russian Federation’s participation in an active arms treaty than he was to send his military into a neighboring nation. This is a man a man profoundly disappointed with the direction of geopolitical events during his presidency but who feels compelled to spell matters out as they are and act upon them:
The United States and NATO are openly saying that their goal is to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia. Having made this collective statement, NATO has actually claimed to be a participant in the Treaty on Strategic Arms…. In early February the North Atlantic alliance made a statement with the actual demand… of inspections to our nuclear defense facilities. I don’t even know what to call this. It is a kind of theater of the absurd…. In the current conditions of confrontation, it simply sounds insane.”
No, the U.S. has not withdrawn from New START, not operationally, as it did from the ABM and INF accords, or Open Skies, a trust-building pact that allowed signatories to fly unarmed surveillance craft over each other’s territory. But Washington did just as much to scuttle it, as Putin asserted in his speech. And it is notable in this connection the extent to which Putin relates his New START decision to the Ukraine conflict. As he signaled in his aggrieved speech announcing the Russian military operation a year ago, Ukraine has tipped him over so far as working with the West goes.
Putin’s news on New START came far down in his speech, which may at first seem a little surprising, given what Western media are making of it. I read it differently.
One, while not of no consequence, suspending New START at this point is of little. Two, and this gets interesting, the Russian leader was much more concerned with domestic and economic matters. It is striking in this connection to note the time he took to describe a multitude of projects—in industry, in trade, in infrastructure, and so on—intended to shift Russia’s front door away from the West and toward the non–Western nations to the east, notably China, and to the south, notably, but not only, Turkey and Iran.
I have read much of what Putin has had to say over the past year in the context of the Joint Declaration on International Relations Entering a New Era that Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping made public in Beijing on 4 February 2022. This, one of the essential political texts of our time, can be read in various ways. One is as a blueprint for a century during which the non–West breaks its various dependencies on the West, longstanding as these are, and achieves parity with the West for the first time in more than half a millennium.
“This Presidential Address comes, as we all know, at a difficult, watershed period for our country,” Putin began. “This is a time of radical, irreversible change in the entire world, of crucial historical events that will determine the future of our country and our people, a time when every one of us bears a colossal responsibility.”
Reference to the 4 February Declaration explains everything you may want to know about what he meant in these sentences.
Another step away from the West: It is a small one in terms of all the ruined and frayed arms control treaties, but as Moscow’s latest step back from the West it isn’t. This is what makes Russia’s break from the New START regime important, a big deal. In his remarks, which were directly to his points per usual, Putin made clear that he regrets this, too, in the larger scheme of things.
“In today’s world there should be no division into so-called civilized countries and all the rest,” Putin concluded, “and that there is a need for an honest partnership that rejects any exclusivity, especially an aggressive one.”
I do not think this thought requires further comment.